Food and oil painting reproductions: these human drives come together in this gluttonous collection of painting reproductions. Food’s vital importance for sustenance and pleasure makes it a potent signifier for other concerns: social and power relations, religious ideologies, national identity, and personal expressions of attachment, oil painting, and loss. These are among the intimate relations between food and art explored in the painting reproductions installed in the exhibition space of Antoni Gaudi’s La Pedrera in Barcelona. As an appetizer, a sampling of early still life paintings was served and dessert was the work of artist/chef, Ferran Adria, with rich and varied courses offered in between.
The first section, “Evolution of the Still Life Genre,” began with famous still life paintings, when the genre became coded and established. Embedded in realistic displays of flowers, fruits, insects, and blemishes are familiar tropes: the abundance of earthly life troubled by the inevitable presence of death, all wrapped in the Christian imperative to negotiate a balance between bodily pleasures and the promise of the afterlife. After falling out of favour in the early 19th century, food returned as a popular subject in 20th-century avant-garde art, and especially in the 1960s and 70s, when artists sought to incorporate everyday materials and forms in their work.
Immediately following the historical still lifes, and stunningly collapsing the distance between, were the paired reproductions remakes of Sam Taylor-Wood and Ori Gersht, whose work exploded the earlier static realism and suggestion of decaying time. Initially, these reproductions appear to be still photographs, which surprised the viewer when they come to moving-life, and then death. Taylor-Wood’s Still Life (2001) tracks with exhilarating slowness the collapse of a large plate of perfect red and yellow fruits into a wedding cake of rot and floating sprays of mould dust. This accelerated view of decaying fruit shows us the process of ruin, only statically symbolized in earlier versions.
Ori Gersht’s Pomegranate (zoo6) recreates Juan Sanchez Cotan’s Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber (1602): gourds rest on the lower frame, a cab bage and quince hang from strings, all cut by hard Spanish sunlight. Gersht replaces a pomegranate for the quince and choreographs a dance of death: a bullet punctures the fertile fruit, violently dispersing its bloodred seeds in slow-motion wonder. Also quoted here is the MIT inventor of stroboscopic photo graphy, Harold Edgerton, who famously sent bullets speeding through apples. In his art, Secret Knowledge (2003), David Hockney theorized Renaissance artists’ use of photographic optics. He recreated the same Cotan painting, projected it though a camera obscura, and when the cabbage was accidently set spinning, he thrillingly observed an early “movie?’ Gersht collapses these polemic techno-times (painting, photography, art), modifying the themes of life and death. The pomegranate symbolizes fertility, but for Gersht, it also carries homonymic sympathies with the de structure explosives of his Israeli childhood.
The still life’s dialectic of abundance and negation is echoed and expanded by these contemporary artists. Modern technologies, for killing and visual capture blast apart that delicate premodern balance with splendid destruction, allowing to surface what Walter Benjamin called the “optical unconscious.” Death is bigger, more insistent in our age.
Tacita Dean’s art Prisoner Pair (2008) continues the nature morte theme. “Poire prisonniere” is a specialty of the region of Alsace: a still-growing pear bud is enclosed in a bottle, which is filled with eau de vie once the fruit matures A succession of intimate views of two such imprisoned pears is captured by Dean’s camera. The pear bodies, mottled surfaces of pale golden greens, float within the patinated glass prisons. Dean buried the bottles to add physical and metaphorical texture, resurrecting them from their graves, still born, before painting.
Unlike the dramatic transformations achieved through advanced reproductions technology in the two previous works, Dean uses 16 mm art. We are back to real time, if only a little closer to static still life. Subtle shifts as the fermenting pears merge with their fluid wombs, the camera’s varied vantage, and falling sunlight behind create, according to Dean, Friedrichian landscapes. The clunky and indelicate projector casts microcosmic worlds of life and death onto a small suspended screen, adding to the sense of nostalgia for a precious past.
The second section, “Eating Art,” departs from the poetic tracings of momenta mori and explores the political, conceptual, and playful. Included are such seminal pieces as Piero Manzoni’s Merde dartista, n. 68(1961) and Salvador Dali’s paintings. Alongside them, Martha Rosler’s representation of everyday culture considers the semiotics of power in class and race relations in her dining room painting. A Gourmet Experience (1974), shows the discrepancies between bourgeois haute cuisine and its fetishization of ethnic foods and the lives of those whose culture has been appropriated. Pages from 1950s food magazines are montaged with quotations from imperialist food writers and scenes of the colonized regions from where the exotic food motifs derive, cleverly highlighting the exploitation of other cultures for elite consumption.
Rosler’s work is paired nicely with Chantal Akermans experimental fiction him Jeanne Dielman, 23 zuai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). In it, Jeanne’s inability to accept her repressive, routinized domestic and sexual role leads to a radical, and deadly conclusion. The thematic pairing of violence and domesticity continues with Mona Hatoum’s Grater Divide (2002). Her oversized three-sided grater, expanded as room divider, signifies both the separation of women’s work, spaces and status, and the violence of that divisive exclusion.
A more self-sacrificial violence is seen in Marina Abramovic’s dvdloop, The Onion (1996), which considers food as pain. A closeup frames Abramovic’s lip-sticked and lovely face chomping down on a large onion, her own weary voiceover lament beneath: “I’m tired of waiting for planes. So tired of museum and gallery exhibitions, standing around with a plain glass of water. Of more and more career decisions. Lonely hotel rooms, dirty sheets, long-distance phone calls. Of being ashamed of my nose being too big, of my ass being too large. I’m ashamed of the war in Yugoslavia …” The repetitions litany accentuates the dull pain of modern ennui, as she takes bigger and more desperate bites of the onion that is causing toxic tears to stream down her face.
Artists7Kitchens closed the exhibition, with a focus on food itself as art and performance, presented through paintings of documentary artifacts from artists’ restaurants. Daniel Spoerri’s “trap oil painting reproductions” are the fixed remains of clients’ meals from his Dusseldorf restaurant (1967). Suitably, final attention was given to food artist Ferran Adria, whose radically creative approach to food at his Catalan restaurant elBulli prompted his being invited to participate in Document an and his being accorded official art status.
That the works discussed herein include only a small sample from what is a large collection of art reproductions is testament to the curatorial integrity brought to bear in this exhibition, and food’s diverse relations with psyche, soma, and society.
Jill Glossing is a Toronto-based writer, artist and instructor of Art and Cultural History at Ryerson University and York University.